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Jane Smiley

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Jane Smiley's 13th novel, a bloody-minded historical fiction of the sort that only Smiley can write, indicts marriage as it was lived by many American women in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Instead of living happily every after, a fate they had been brought up to expect, middle-class American women often ran into a nasty surprise after their weddings, Smiley's novel suggests. She builds her case through the story of Margaret Mayfield, a St. Louis girl who sees a hanging at the age of 5 but can't remember much about it until she's an older woman. Finally Margaret is able to describe the hanging to her knitting circle, even recalling the way the sole of the outlaw's shoe flapped as he went up the stairs to the gallows.

The hanging is a metaphor for the destruction of Margaret's self-knowledge after her marriage to Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, her strange, mentally unstable husband, who worked in an observatory at a naval base near San Francisco. And Margaret's restored memory is a triumph because for the first time she understands her life, instead of living as a comatose dupe.

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At first, I expected Smiley to tell a dramatic tale in the manner of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, although her subject matter has always had impressive scope. An amiable and virtuoso storyteller, Smiley is known for being able to write "fabulously" about anything, as one critic put it. She has written books on horses for young adults, prize-winning adult novels and memorable works of non-fiction such as her glorious 2005 book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, a text that should be on every university's English course.

The problem with Margaret's story is a lack of drama

But Smiley hasn't written a novel like A Thousand Acres here. With Private Life, she has created a richly detailed, sometimes ponderous, story that nevertheless is capable of evoking moments of deep sympathy and tenderness for its heroine, Margaret.

Included in Margaret's tale are harrowing descriptions of the San Francisco fire and earthquake; the 1918 influenza pandemic and the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. All these disasters impinge on Margaret, whose private life is the true historical event in Smiley's narrative.

Halfway through her marriage, Margaret realizes that the institution of marriage is "relentless and terrifying," and that her own marriage is "a horror buried in domestic detail." She develops a secret dread of Andrew, whose scientific theories are plagiarized because he memorizes what he reads and regurgitates it later without understanding what he's doing.

The sight of his head ducking under their doorframe repels her. She also discovers that both her mother and mother-in-law conspired to put Margaret's neck in the hangman's noose, fully aware of what sort of man Andrew was. Their betrayal awakens Margaret to her own needs, and Smiley is a wizard at describing Margaret's emotional states, her early spunk and the subtle nature of Margaret's reawakening after the dimming down of her energy and desire when she is married.

Listen to Smiley talking about Margaret's love for her new baby: "If she said she loved Alexander, what she was talking about was a bodily transformation. It was as if he were a dye and she was white wool.

"Looking at him and holding him dyed her through and through."

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The problem with Margaret's story is a lack of drama. Sometimes the novel reads as if Smiley told her story at a slower pace because time moved in a leisurely way in Margaret's world. And this is where bloody-mindedness comes in, since Smiley doesn't bother trying to ingratiate herself with her readers.

So there's no point expecting a fast-paced entertainment. The closest thing Smiley has written to Private Life is her 1988 novel The Greenlanders, an unrelenting, dispassionate portrait of a Viking family in 14th-century Greenland. Both Private Life and The Greenlanders are provocative social documents that make us rethink the ways we remember the past.

Of course, an indictment of middle-class marriage isn't new. However, I read parts of Smiley's novel to my 90-year-old mother and, afterward, we found ourselves wondering about our dead female relatives. Had one great aunt really been happy with the man she married to please her mother? And did a great-grandmother let herself be sent to a sanitarium so she could escape domestic chores? I'm sure Smiley would have enjoyed hearing us talk about our female ancestors. They lived, they sorrowed, and maybe now we understand them a little better than before.

Susan Swan's next novel is The Hockey Killer, a prequel to The Wives of Bath.

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